Ola, and welcome to Backhand Shelf’s very first mailbag, which I’ll try to incorporate every week going forward. You can fire your questions to me on Twitter (hashtag #BShelf), on Facebook, or in good ‘ol fashioned email form at backhandshelf@thescore.com. Email qualifies as “old fashioned” by now, doesn’t it?

So let’s dive in and tackle the most interesting questions from this week.

I think the obvious answer to “most improved” has to be the Minnesota Wild with the pick-ups of Parise and Suter, solely because the words “mediocre” have haunted that franchise for the past decade. I mean, honestly, if I’m a fan of that team I’ll take a playoff birth or a last place finish (for draft pick’s sake) – they always just hover around ninth/tenth in the conference, rarely crack playoffs, rarely get a great young player… so this is something.

As for the most exciting, I’ve got three picks:

Los Angeles: Obviously, the Kings just won the Cup. The thing is, they did it after under-achieving their way to the eight-seed, then playing so few games in playoffs (to their credit) that they never got as run down as their opponents, and they rolled ‘em. I’m excited to see if this team has “President’s Trophy” ceiling, or if the way they looked in playoffs was just a fluke stretch. Fittingly, to go with LA…

Philadelphia: I kind of feel like this team is poised to win a Cup of their own. While they don’t have to pay Couturier and Schenn the big bucks, they’ve got a ridiculous amount of talent up front. Their D may be suspect with all the injuries, but that just makes a team more exciting to watch (not better, just more exciting). If Bryzgalov can come back to life – and I think it’s possible – they’re going to be a tough out for anyone in playoffs. Hell, even if they give us one more series like that Pens/Philly one from last year, I’m in. And finally…

Edmonton Oilers: At some point, your young talent – your top picks full of hope and promise – have to mature into real talent. Right now Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall are all ripping up the AHL, though not quite as much as their new teammate Justin Schultz. Magnus Paajarvi is there too, and Linus Omark still exists…win or lose, this team is going to be fun to watch.

Yeahhh, no. I’m sorry. I’m sorry that this can’t happen. Here’s why: Your rec hockey team will not meet to practice, because it is made up of humans with shit to do. If they can clear two hours to play hockey, that’s what they want to do: play hockey.

You could draw it up in the dressing room, but first off, you’ll be judged as “that guy” for trying to play coach. Then you have the fact that guys rarely play their positions in lower-level rec anyway. Then you uneven talent levels between players, so guys aren’t coming up the ice at the same time. Keep passes short.

If I’m wrong in all of that, and you think you can introduce one to your team, keep it simple – support, support, support. If you bring it up the wall, have the center support low, and the far winger cut across the ice to offer a chip option, which should drag back the opposing d-men.

The easiest thing to note, as a winger, is if the puck is on the far side of the ice, don’t stay in the other far lane. There are too many people to pass through, and too much that could go wrong with an ice-width pass in rec hockey. Here’s the world’s crudest drawing of it:

The spacing’s not great there above, but you get the idea.

I think the inconsistency in conditioning will lead to players being either under-prepared or over-prepared for contact. Which is to say, ask any hockey player who’s sitting out as a healthy scratch what it’s like when you get back into a game. As hard as you can bag skate yourself, there’s no cardio like in-game cardio. Replicating the tiny moves and flinches and reads you have to make while going full speed just isn’t possible in practice.

So those guys who have been sitting out will be facing guys who’ve been playing competitive pro hockey, and may have subconsciously forgotten what it’s like to compete at your top level, to push yourself. I think we’ll see some huge stat totals from some guys, and some terrible ones from others, because sometimes you’ll be coming down on a guy who hasn’t been playing, and sometimes you’ll be bearing down on someone completely rust-free. Luck will have a big hand in the early games.

I dunno (you’ll notice I attached the pic of Rick DiPietro doing that above).

A hunch: their hands are cold. Not playing, just sitting by the ice, mitts out? Might as well keep ‘em in there. And I suppose if a puck comes flying in their direction, little better to have the glove on to snare it, versus the bare hand. Safety first!

Goalies, how’d I do there?

They certainly change the tone and attitude of the dressing room, and I think most of you, in any line of work, know that those things affect performance. I don’t think they make as big of a difference as some other people, which is why when I get stuck playing for a “drill sargeant,” I get annoyed. “Is being this miserable/tense all the time worth whatever the possible benefits are?” Not to me, anyway.

As for motivating a lazy player, there are different types of lazy. There’s talented lazy, guys who wait to go full out until they get an opportunity (ala Lionel Messi), there’s one-way lazy, guys who won’t backcheck, and there’s pouty lazy, guys who aren’t trying their hardest because they’re pissy about something. Obviously, they need to be dealt with differently.

Some guys rely purely on self-motivation, and are beyond help. Some guys need to talk it out with their coach (and thus a players coach would be advantageous), and some guys just need a kick in the pants (Tortorella-style). I think you have to treat each case differently.

I don’t think we’ll see a decline in hockey talent, but you’re right, hockey enrollment is down, and I do believe part of that has to do with the cost. It’s a killer, man. If my kids want to play soccer instead of hockey, they’ll get a good ‘ol “BY ALL MEANS.”

Used gear is an option, but most parents want their kids to be protected as best as possible, and want to give them the best chance to succeed with good stuff. By the time you’re like, 15, it probably takes two grand to get properly outfitted. So again, yes, I can see numbers going down.

The good thing is, the game is a lot more global now that it has been in the past, and maybe the numbers will spike somewhere else and make up for the decline here.

There’s no way the talent-level goes down, but with Canada becoming more and more diverse, our interests are doing the same. Hockey isn’t the only game in town anymore.

Obviously it depends on how things go in the AHL this year, but by all accounts it’s going just fine. I have heard that there were a few potentially excited puck races that got blown down (which the fans found deflating), but I think that’s a small price to pay to stop having guys snap their femurs. Guh.

Safety is becoming more and more important to the league, and I think if they have a way to limit risk that does affect the game all that much (and actually it probably speeds things up a touch), they’ll incorporate it. At the very least, they’d get to look like they care about safety.

Naw, I never had anyone express any disappointment. I remember my parents offering me a ski pass one year if I didn’t play hockey because the travel and early mornings and time consumption were killing them (though I later found out my Dad was pumped I kept playing). But in all seriousness, I never “fell short,” by my expectations, I way over-achieved.

My second year Bantam – so, as a 14/15 year old – I got cut to the house team. We were a “AA” organization, and had both B and A rep teams. I got called up to “B” at Christmas when a kid moved though, yay!

Then I played both years of “AA” midget. Then I played Junior B as a 17/18 year old rookie. The fact that I ever saw D1 NCAA hockey or an NHL camp was more surprising than anything.

I have considered staying close to hockey by coaching, but part of the reason I’m so content is job stability. I’ve moved around my whole life chasing hockey. I’m married now, my wife has a good job, I have a good job, and we’re happy. I’d love to get back involved in the future, but for now, it’s nice to have the roots set down somewhere.

Thanks for the questions today, friends. We’ll try this again next week!